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Politicians of Oklahoma’s Past: Chief Wilma Mankiller

10:50 AM EDT on April 20, 2021

“I’ve taken a fair amount of teasing amount my name during this conference and I finally got a little tired of it last night when I got on the elevator and a man again teased me about my name—which is Mankiller. He asked me about the origin of it and I said it was a nickname and that I’d earned it."Wilma Mankiller

When Oklahomans think about their politicians, what often comes to mind are a bunch of old conservative white people who are too busy obsessing over genitals and being a goddam bigot with their Facebook buddies to even acknowledge their campaign promises. But what if I told you that once upon a time there existed an elected official who poured her time and energy not into bullshit bills, but rather into community development and decades of advocacy? What if I told you about a leader who actually followed up on campaign promises to connect her constituents with housing, education, and healthcare? What if I told you about one of the smartest, most badass women to ever call Oklahoma home?

Then I’d be telling you the story of Chief Wilma Mankiller.

Wilma Pearl Mankiller was born in Talequah in 1945 and spent her early childhood on tribal lands before her family moved to California. The family moved out west as part of the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 that attempted to “assimilate” the Native families into cities but instead left the Mankillers and many more families worse off as they were struggling to find jobs while experiencing discrimination. Mankiller, whose great-grandfather arrived in Oklahoma via the Trail of Tears, equivocated her own family’s government-sponsored relocation to the generational trauma her ancestors experienced on the Trail.

Screw history books. US Government-sponsored trauma should be taught in Current Events courses.

Growing up in California also introduced Wilma Mankiller to a variety of social movements. In college Mankiller was educated in sociology and participated in protests and demonstrations across San Francisco throughout the 60s and 70s as part of the United Indians of All Tribes, advocating for civil rights. During this she also married her first husband, welcomed two daughters into the world, and cultivated her social justice superpowers in preparation for the glass ceiling-smashing to come.

After divorcing her husband in 1977, Wilma Mankiller moved back to Oklahoma and resided on her grandfather’s land. As a single mother of two, she effectively achieved more for her community without an elected position than our esteemed Governor has with an entire cabinet. Mankiller not only used her community organization skills to develop the Bell Water Program, which brought water to the whole-ass community of Bell, Oklahoma; she also joined in doing the physical labor.

Let’s face it: Stitt probably didn’t get those muscles by helping his constituents.

Wilma Mankiller was recognized for her dedication to community building and was elected Deputy Chief of the Cherokee in 1983. In 1985 she assumed the role as Chief of the Cherokee when the-Chief Ross Swimmer stepped down. Despite facing hella sexism, she was re-elected to two more terms after that. Not only did she run on a platform that promised to lower unemployment, increase opportunities for education, and improve healthcare for her people: she f*cking did it. In her nearly ten-year tenure, Mankiller’s leadership ushered in a 200% increase in revenue for the tribe, the opening of three health centers, a head start program, and many more initiatives.

Wilma Mankiller retired from her post as Principal Chief in 1995. Despite experiencing chronic health problems, Mankiller spent the remainder of her life teaching others about Native American Culture alongside her second husband, Charlie Soap, whom she met while working on the Bell Water Project. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998 and continued her advocacy for years. She passed away in 2010, leaving behind a magnificent legacy and significant positive impact on the world.

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Compare this to one of our esteemed lawmakers' promises on their campaign site. Then follow Hayley on twitter @squirrellygeek and become a contributing member of TLO here.

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